On War: The Best Military Histories

The Pritzker Military Library and Museum in Chicago’s Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing honors “writers whose work adds to the public’s understanding of military history and the role played by the military in civil society.” The list of the award’s seven winners (it dates from 2007) is a who’s who of distinguished military historians, along with a former war correspondent (Rick Atkinson) and one novelist (Tim O’Brien, 2013’s recipient).

The handsomely produced new book On War; The Best of Military Histories (Pritzker Military Museum and Library, 264 pp., $27) contains seven excerpts from the work of the award winners. That august group is made up of the historians James McPherson, Carlo D’Este, Max Hastings, Allan Millett, and Gerhard Weinberg, as well as the award-winning journalist Atkinson and O’Brien, the most honored Vietnam veteran novelist.

The editors of this top-quality volume—including former Vietnam magazine editor Roger Vance who served as the book’s managing editor, and Michael Robbins, the editor of Military History magazine, the book’s editor—chose the perfect excerpt from O’Brien’s work: “How to Tell a True War Story” from The Things They Carried.

As the introduction to this section notes:

The excerpt “is a characteristically sharp response to the challenge of how to convey in words on paper a true sense of the surreal blend of horror, boredom, humor, fear, love, brutality, and grace that was combat in Vietnam.”

In this work of fiction which contains many elements of the truth, O’Brien discourses on what is real and what is not when it comes to war stories.

“In many cases,” he writes, “a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.

“In other cases you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it’s just beyond telling.”

—Marc Leepson